Student helps transform tin shack into school

Karin Dienst

Princeton NJ -- From her room in Blair Hall on Princeton's campus, Jacqui Perlman '05 is overseeing a fund-raising effort to build a school nearly 8,000 miles away in South Africa.

Perlman, left, recently was honored for her efforts on behalf of the school with a Seventeen Magazine-Cover Girl National Volunteerism Award presented by actress Minnie Driver.


The school is located in Joe Slovo Township, a post-apartheid informal settlement of about 6,000 people near Port Elizabeth. For a community living in extreme poverty at the outermost edges of society, Perlman's efforts already have achieved the most dramatic improvement possible-- she has helped saved lives.

Two and a half years ago, from her home in St. Petersburg, Fla., Perlman came across a Web site that described the deadly journey children from the settlement had to make across a dangerous highway just to get to school because they did not have a school of their own. She learned that more than 150 accidents had claimed the lives of several children and injured many more.

Called to action, this granddaughter of an anti-apartheid leader and former mayor of Johanesburg immediately began raising funds from individuals and organizations to help sustain a school for the children in their own community. From previous visits to other townships across South Africa, such as Soweto and Alexandria, Perlman realized that the legacy of apartheid and its resulting economic struggles would make it extremely difficult to get a school up and running.

She knew there would be no electricity or running water in the school, at least for the near future, because these basic services did not exist in the settlement. But, with enough funds, a tin shack could be turned into classrooms made from prefab materials and cinder blocks, volunteer teachers could be paid something and children could have school supplies.

To meet the challenge, Perlman established the Shack School Fund (USA), which so far has raised approximately $10,000 in money and supplies that has helped the school grow to five classrooms, housing students up to grade six.

"The goal is to make this a school that can withstand time and provide a solid education to the township children," said Perlman.

One factor crucial to helping the school "withstand time" is gaining recognition and support from the South African government.

"With so many other troubles, the education of the children in informal settlements is often forgotten," said Perlman. "But as a result of the Shack School Fund (USA) being an outside funding source, the government now has recognized the school and is in the process of adding new classrooms to accommodate the growing number of students."

Perlman untiringly raises the fund's visibility through many channels. One key move was to link the project to the South Africa Development Fund, the Boston-based 501c3 charity founded in 1985 that provides exposure to donors in America for South African charities such as the Shack School Fund (USA). The reason for this link is so that all donations to the fund will be granted tax-deductible status.

This past April Perlman gave the Shack School Fund a big boost of publicity when she was chosen one of six young women out of approximately 10,000 applications to receive the Seventeen Magazine-Cover Girl National Volunteerism Award, which includes $5,000 toward the fund and another $5,000 toward Perlman's own education. The award also included a three-day trip to New York, photo shoots, interviews, and a ceremony at the Rainbow Room during which the awards were presented by celebrities including Minnie Driver and Molly Simms. She also received a proclamation from New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey and Florida Sen. Bob Graham. Stories about the award winners will appear in the August issue of Seventeen.


The funds raised by Jacqui Perlman '05 are going to a school located in Joe Slovo Township near Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

"My hope is that from this award there will be a way to get running water and toilets for the classrooms," said Perlman. "Alternatively, we have discussed using these funds for uniforms, track suits and textbooks for the children. From what is left of the award, it will possibly help in a small way to give the unsalaried teachers some funds to further their incentive to continue teaching at the school. My hope is that this generous award will provide the incentive for many more people to contribute to the fund."

Perlman also is writing a proposal for renewed backing from the United Nations Women's Guild. Two years ago she made the guild aware of the plight of the Shack School and, as a result, they sent a representative to the school and donated money to the fund.

Another plan in the works to help the school involves Perlman's classmates. Collaborating with the University's International Center, she intends to establish a program that enables Princeton students to teach at the Shack School in the summer. If all goes well, the start date could be as soon as this summer.

Surprisingly, even with the high level of activity Perlman dedicates to the Shack School Fund-- she works on some aspect of the project daily-- she has not yet had the chance to visit the school, but plans to in the very near future.

The program supervisor/project coordinator at the Shack School, Keisha Mayhew, keeps Perlman fully informed about developments there. While the two women have not yet met, Perlman calls Mayhew "phenomenal" and Mayhew calls Perlman "amazing."

"Jacqui's dedication to improving the school's circumstances, despite a hectic schedule, are totally admirable," said Mayhew. "She got involved as a 17-year-old schoolgirl wanting to help others less fortunate than herself on another continent. Her commitment is evident, and we cannot wait to meet her."

Even with a new academic and social life at Princeton and new volunteer responsibilities-- Perlman serves as the executive board secretary of the Undergraduate Student Government and on several of its committees and is the vice chair of the Mathey College Council-- she will not stint on doing her utmost for the children of the Joe Slovo settlement.

"There is a lot more that needs to be done to improve the lives and education of all of the children of this community, and I am determined never to relinquish my efforts." she said.

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June 3, 2002
Vol. 92, No. 27
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Commencement ceremony set
Selection as valedictorian a family affair for the Pierces
Love of languages inspires salutatorian

Page one
Former Secretary of State Baker donates papers to Princeton
World's first four printed Bibles part of a special one-day display

Marion Levy Jr., Princeton scholar of modernization, dies at age 83
Four selected for Graduate Mentoring Awards
Wireless course a hit with students and NSF
Student helps transform tin shack into school
Tuition grant increased
Swim season is here

People briefs
People spotlight, obituaries
By the numbers
Calendar of events

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Editor: Ruth Stevens
Calendar editor: Carolyn Geller
Staff writers: Jennifer Greenstein Altmann, Steven Schultz
Contributing writers: Marilyn Marks, Evelyn Tu
Photographer: Denise Applewhite
Design: Mahlon Lovett, Laurel Masten Cantor, Megan Peterson
Web edition: Mahlon Lovett